This had never happened before.
Zhu Yilong glared at the smiling face, those bright eyes with that teasing curve of those ridiculous lips. He was a man frozen in time, standing on a plinth and looking over his shoulder at someone behind him. Even when frozen in time, he seemed full of life, animation radiating from every pore, laughter just a breath away if one just listened carefully enough.
Walking a circle around him, Zhu Yilong frowned, rubbing at his forehead.
The first time Zhu Yilong had encountered this strange person was more than a month ago. He had coincidentally seen that man again less than two weeks later to find that none of his work had taken effect. Puzzled, Zhu Yilong had pulled out his Time tools once again and flagged this man for another examination two days later. After that, he had been checking in on this person nearly daily.
It wasn’t possible, but the evidence was undeniable.
This person wasn’t aging.
While it might sound ridiculous to expect someone to visibly age in the span of weeks, let alone days, that was only if one was relying on mortal eyes. Zhu Yilong was not mortal, and his sight didn’t stop merely at the surface of human skin. What he could see went beyond skin and flesh and bones, going right down to a person’s essence.
This person on his plinth wasn’t aging.
With a frustrated glare, Zhu Yilong snapped his fingers, and the man disappeared from his plinth. But Zhu Yilong could still see him once he turned his gaze to look through time and space. The laughter he was expecting to hear spilled out, dancing through the air as the man said something to his companion, throwing his head back in sheer joy.
Even though it was the kind of carefree laugh that should be pleasing to anyone’s ears, Zhu Yilong wasn’t feeling particularly pleased at the moment. He wandered down the circular stairs to the little dusty office he hardly ever used, heading to the lone cabinet at the back. Sliding the first drawer open, he reached in without looking and pulled out the first file his fingers touched.
When he opened the file, all the information of the person he was looking for was laid out on the papers within.
Name: Bai Yu
Birthdate: 8 April 1990
Location of birth: Xi’an, China
Current location: Beijing, China
Nothing was out of place, and the information remained the same as when he first read this file weeks ago now. Once again, Zhu Yilong glared at the part about his age. Bai Yu was most certainly not 27 years old, although he could not say how old Bai Yu really was. He had been putting the file back every day, hoping the information would have changed the next time he pulled it back out, but with no luck so far. Seeing as it was a pointless wish, he closed the cabinet drawer calmly, not slamming it, not even a little bit, and took the file with him this time.
He headed back up to the highest point of the Tower, walking back up the winding stairs towards his workshop where the giant round clock took up an entire wall of the room. Dropping the file on his desk as he walked by it, Zhu Yilong went up to the skeleton of the clock of Time, the circular frame and the clock’s needles serving as his window that overlooked the world outside.
It was frustrating. This wasn’t exactly a job that Zhu Yilong particularly enjoyed, but he was very good at it and had never made a mistake before. He couldn’t understand what was going on, and this mystery had caused him to waste many hours out of many days watching this person called Bai Yu, trying to figure out what was going on.
Zhu Yilong knew a lot about Bai Yu’s gregarious nature by now, knew about his love for noodles, knew about his tendency towards mischief and teasing.
But he still had no idea why Bai Yu wasn’t aging and why none of Time’s tools worked on him.
This was taking up too much of his attention, but he couldn’t just ignore this Bai Yu person either. After all, what would happen when Dragon came to take over next year? How would Zhu Yilong explain about Bai Yu? It would be considered a terrible negligence of his duties.
So no matter what, he had to solve this mystery.
The only problem was that he didn’t know where to start.
Zhu Yilong draped his arm over the hour hand of the giant clock and propped his chin on his forearm, staring out over the city moodily. He had to do something about Bai Yu. He couldn’t just wait around for the answer to come knocking on his door.
Three thunderous knocks echoed through the tower.
Zhu Yilong jerked upright, almost smacking his head against the minute hand of the clock. He spun around and dashed to the railing, staring down the spiral staircase in shock. Had he imagined that?
It wasn’t possible for anyone to be knocking on the door. No one should be able to see the Tower.
After a moment, the knocking started again, startling him once more. Hesitating for another moment, Zhu Yilong finally made a dash down the winding staircase, running round and round and round until he finally reached the bottom of the Tower where large, arched doors loomed. It was a good thing he regularly exercised, otherwise he would probably be very out of breath after that mad dash.
Zhu Yilong stared at the plain wooden doors, free of any embellishment except for the large metal hinges and the circular door handles. Could he even open them? His role meant he had to stay in the Tower for an entire year to do his duty, so he had never tried to open the doors from the inside before.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Once again, Zhu Yilong startled at the knocking, almost jumping into the air. Fortunately, there wasn’t anyone to see that embarrassing reaction. Deciding there was no harm in trying, he went forward and tugged tentatively at the door handles.
They swung open with strange ease considering the size of the doors, without even needing the slightest exertion on his part.
On the other side of the door, a familiar face looked back at him, eyes brightening with mischief and pouting lips turning up in an inviting smile.
“Hello, Zhu Yilong!” Bai Yu greeted with a hint of excitement. “Nice to meet you. How are you?”
Zhu Yilong stared in a daze as Bai Yu wandered around his workshop, peering at everything with open curiosity and examining the most mundane items with intense interest.
“That’s just a glass of water,” Zhu Yilong pointed out faintly.
“I see, I see,” Bai Yu said, nodding his head, as if in great understanding of some deep mystery that Zhu Yilong had just explained.
Zhu Yilong wasn’t sure how they had wound up here like this. After he had opened the door to find the person he had been puzzling over standing right there, Zhu Yilong had mainly been reacting on auto-pilot. He had returned Bai Yu’s greeting, asked how he was doing in turn, and allowed him in without thinking when Bai Yu had stepped forward.
It had been a mistake not to shut the doors on this person immediately, because mortals weren’t meant to know about Time and its Tower. But it wasn’t a disastrous mistake, not yet anyway, because the moment Bai Yu left the Tower, his memories of what happened within the Tower would disappear. The memory spell was woven into the very stones of the Tower to ensure that no mortal with unusual powers pried into Time’s secrets if they ever found the Tower. The Sacred Twelve never discussed it, but Zhu Yilong knew a few of the others would bring friends or loved ones in to ease the loneliness within the Tower, even though none of them would ever remember anything once they set foot outside again.
In any case, this was an error that Zhu Yilong could still remediate, as soon as he got Bai Yu to leave.
Except after the strangely cordial and mundane greetings, Bai Yu had gone up the spiral staircase like he was sightseeing in a museum, exclaiming over the height of the tower, over how many stairs there were, over how everything was so well-made. He didn’t seem at all confused as to what the Tower was doing there, and how he had even found himself on its doorstep.
Now, watching Bai Yu wander around his workshop, Zhu Yilong slowly but surely came to his senses as the shock faded.
“I’m sorry, but...what are you doing here?” Zhu Yilong asked, before frowning and added, “How did you find this place?”
Sometimes mortals stumbled across the Tower, because those with a subconscious affinity with the Sacred Twelve or with Time were drawn to this nexus of power, but it was a very rare occurrence.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have been able to find it if you hadn’t looked for me so many times. That gave me an anchor to trace,” Bai Yu explained as he abandoned the desk with the glass of water, heading over to Zhu Yilong.
Blinking rapidly, Zhu Yilong asked, “What?”
“If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back,” Bai Yu intoned, stopping in front of Zhu Yilong, hands tucked into his pockets. “Wait, that sounds very unflattering. I’m not the abyss.”
Zhu Yilong stared at him, finally taking the time to examine him in person. He looked over Bai Yu’s fluffy, messy hair, parted to the side, and looked over his bright, inquisitive eyes combined with a high nose and expressive mouth. Wearing a loose green jacket and white T-shirt, paired with a stylish pair of jeans and incongruously a pair of Crocs, Bai Yu looked more like a young white-collar worker on his day off. He seemed like a perfectly normal human being. Except for his complete lack of aging.
“Then what are you?” Zhu Yilong asked bluntly.
Smiling, Bai Yu said, “Where would the fun be in just telling you?”
They stared at each other, Zhu Yilong feeling rising annoyance. “Then why are you here?”
“Where would the fun be in telling you that either?” Bai Yu repeated with clear mischief in his voice.
“Then— Then you can go away,” Zhu Yilong told him in a pique of extreme irritation, even though just a few minutes ago, he had been wondering how he would investigate this Bai Yu person, right before this Bai Yu person delivered himself right to Zhu Yilong’s literal doorstep.
“I can’t do that,” Bai Yu said, tilting his head.
Zhu Yilong frowned. “Why not?”
Shrugging, Bai Yu said, “Because I don’t want to.”
Zhu Yilong had never, ever encountered anyone as infuriating as Bai Yu in his entire life.
“I can force you out of the Tower,” he said in a low voice.
As the master of the Tower for the year, this was now his domain, and he had complete power over it. He looked at Bai Yu with hard eyes, frowning as he gathered the swirling powers of Time to do so, readying himself to forcefully expel Bai Yu out of the door and out of his life.
Bai Yu tilted his head at him, hands held harmlessly at his side as he waited, watching Zhu Yilong with only interest in his eyes, a smile on his lips.
Like a heap of salt doused with water, Zhu Yilong’s determination to get rid of Bai Yu by force disintegrated, melting away at the sight of this strange man waiting patiently there for Zhu Yilong to take action.
He couldn’t do it. Other than barging in and poking around like a curious tourist, Bai Yu had done nothing bad to him or threatened Time’s work either. Zhu Yilong couldn’t muster up the ruthlessness to violently expel him, which was the only way unwanted intruders were handled.
As if not realizing the near miss of being flung out of the Tower, Bai Yu turned in a full circle and asked, “Where do you eat around here? I’m starving. You must have a kitchen of some sort since you have water.”
Zhu Yilong gloomily stared out of the clock, looking over the sun setting over the city. Tomorrow, the Tower would probably overlook a different city. Zhu Yilong rather pettily hoped it would look over a swamp. That would suit his mood right now.
“Aww, is my company that terrible?” Bai Yu asked from behind him.
Turning his head a little, Zhu Yilong shot him a glare from the corner of his eyes. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“You didn’t even look me up?” Bai Yu asked in surprise, looking disappointed at the idea that Zhu Yilong didn’t have him investigated.
“Your file lies,” Zhu Yilong grumbled, staring back out at the city again.
“Oh? What does it say about me?”
Zhu Yilong waved towards his desk, where there was only one file sitting on it from when he had brought it up earlier. He heard Bai Yu walking over to the desk immediately. After a moment of peace and quiet, Bai Yu spoke again.
“It all looks pretty accurate. What’s the problem with it?”
Pushing away from the clock, Zhu Yilong walked over to Bai Yu and glared at his wide-eyed innocent expression, which could only be full of lies.
Zhu Yilong pointed out, “You’re not 28. You’re not any age and you’re not aging.”
Putting a hand to his chest, Bai Yu exclaimed with an unrepentant grin, “Is that a compliment, Long-ge? You must think I look young to say I’m not aging.”
Zhu Yilong had so many questions, but he focused on the one that had bothered him from the start. “How do you know my name?” It was a problem if the identity of the Twelve Sacred Animals were known to humankind, not that Zhu Yilong was convinced that Bai Yu was human, no matter what his own eyes said.
Raising his eyebrows, Bai Yu pointed out, “You’re an actor. I’ve seen your shows and movies, of course I know who you are.”
Right. That...should have been obvious.
Bai Yu was an actor as well. For a moment, Zhu Yilong had forgotten his human identity and choice of career, even though he much preferred it to his actual purpose in life.
“But how do you know who I actually am? How did you find me here?” Zhu Yilong asked, frustrated.
“I felt you watching me, so I came to find you,” Bai Yu said with a shrug. “As for how I know who you really are...maybe I’m one of the other Sacred Twelve?”
Zhu Yilong gave him A Look, not even bothering to argue with him over that.
“Right, I guess you must know who the others are. Can’t pull one over you,” Bai Yu said with a chuckle.
“You know who the others are?” Zhu Yilong asked in shock.
“Only a couple of them. I’m not interested in finding out who the rest are, to be honest,” Bai Yu admitted. “I didn’t know about you either, not until you started watching me. I have to admit, I don’t know why you’re managing Time this year. Shouldn’t you be due in the Tower next year instead?”
Whoever or whatever this Bai Yu was, it was clear he had some idea about Time and the role the Sacred Twelve Animals played in maintaining it, even if he didn’t know the details. Bai Yu couldn’t possibly be human then.
But Zhu Yilong was a little confused by Bai Yu’s question. He asked, “Why would I be due in the tower next year? It’s Dragon’s turn next year.”
“Yes, which...wait. You’re not Dragon?” Bai Yu asked with pure surprise on his face.
Zhu Yilong would enjoy seeing Bai Yu on the back foot for once, except this reaction and question thoroughly confused him. “No, why would I be? I’m Rabbit.”
For a moment, Bai Yu only stared at him, mouth opening and closing as if he was trying to form the right words. Finally, Bai Yu pointed at him and said, “You’re Rabbit? But...your name! Your birth year! You’re Zhu Yilong, born in the year of the Dragon!”
Pushing Bai Yu’s pointing finger down impatiently, Zhu Yilong said with a frown, “That’s not my real birth year, obviously. I just picked a year for my human identity.”
“You called yourself Zhu Yilong and picked the year of the dragon, but you’re actually Rabbit?” Bai Yu demanded. “What kind of decision is this?”
“What’s wrong with my name?” Zhu Yilong asked, lips turning down in a faint sulk. He had been using this name for centuries now, just changing the exact birth year and locations when it was no longer convenient. He liked his name. It was a good name!
“I— I—” Bai Yu wilted. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with your name…”
A little coldly, Zhu Yilong nodded. “That’s right. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
He still heard Bai Yu mutter under his breath, “Someone should have taught the Sacred Twelve how to build proper cover identities.” But Zhu Yilong decided to ignore it, mainly because he really had struggled a lot in the first two or three or ten years with his cover identity, and had to relocate several times before he got it right.
Since it was clear that Bai Yu somewhat knew the rules of Time and the Tower, Zhu Yilong felt compelled to ask. “Why did you come to the Tower? What are you after?”
Zhu Yilong would be more worried that Bai Yu was here to cause mischief to Time, but none of Time’s tools would work for anyone but Zhu Yilong for the span of the year. Even if Rat or Ox came into the tower right now, they couldn’t do anything to cause a ruckus beyond occupying space in the Tower. And if Bai Yu was intending to do something to Zhu Yilong himself...well, the Sacred Twelve weren’t without their own powers.
Tilting his head, Bai Yu said with a smile, “I came to spend time in the tower with you so we can get to know each other.”
Zhu Yilong blinked and blinked again at this. Then he saw the way Bai Yu’s plush lips curved up in teasing amusement, and he felt his own cheeks flush a little.
“Go away,” Zhu Yilong muttered before brushing past Bai Yu to go to the plinth in the middle of the workshop. He should focus on work instead of wasting anymore time on this incorrigible, baffling person.
“Oh, are you blushing, Long-ge?”
Zhu Yilong pretended he had gone deaf and summoned the next person to work on with a snap of his fingers.
Even though it had already been a week since Bai Yu had literally walked into Zhu Yilong’s life, it was still difficult to concentrate on work when Bai Yu was around. There was something very distracting about Bai Yu, as if the moment he walked into the room, it became just a little brighter, a little more colorful. He always had something interesting to say, his mouth always ready to tease or turn up in an appealing smile.
Objectively appealing, that was. Zhu Yilong wasn’t thinking about it from his own personal perspective. He was just noting that objectively, that was an appealing mouth. Smile, not mouth. He didn’t notice Bai Yu’s mouth at all.
Anyway, Bai Yu’s presence was distracting, which wasn’t good because Zhu Yilong needed to concentrate on his work. He could ask Bai Yu to leave the workshop so he could focus, but that seemed very rude. It also seemed extra rude since Bai Yu kept making and bringing food for him. You couldn’t tell the person feeding you that he was too distracting, so he had to leave the room, could you?
Zhu Yilong had never used the little kitchen three floors down for cooking. He only used it to drink water or coffee, more out of habit than anything, because one didn’t really need to eat while in the Tower. Any food or ingredients one wanted would appear in the cabinets, as long as one thought about it, but Zhu Yilong had never bothered whenever it was his turn in the Tower. Surprisingly, over the past week, he found that even though he didn’t need to eat, it was still nice to sit down for a hot bowl of noodles or better yet, to linger over some spicy hot pot.
If Zhu Yilong found himself smiling and laughing more than he ever did before in the Tower, then he only chalked it up to being in a good mood because of the food.
“Aren’t you worried about your career now that you’re spending all this time in the Tower?” Zhu Yilong asked as he fished out a thin slice of beef from the spicy side of the yin yang hot pot.
The yin yang pot was a large pot with a divider in the middle to keep two different broths separate from each other. They needed this yin yang hot pot to keep the spicy soup from the much less spicy soup. In Bai Yu’s words, it was to keep the tongue-flaying, skin-stripping spice from destroying his tasty, reasonably flavored soup, while in Zhu Yilong’s words, it was to keep the pointless and bland broth from contaminating his delicious, perfectly balanced hot pot.
Bai Yu gave Zhu Yilong a sideways glance. “That’s a trick question, isn’t it? I know time flows differently in this Tower compared to the outside.”
That was surprising. While various demons and ghosts knew vaguely about the Sacred Twelve Animals and how they helped turn the wheel of Time, none of them should know about the quirks of the Time Tower.
At Zhu Yilong’s surprised look, Bai Yu explained, “There’s no news about your human identity, as a known actor, taking a one year break from your acting career. So I figured that time must not flow the same within the Tower.”
“Or maybe I’ve quit my acting career,” Zhu Yilong pointed out reasonably.
“Nah, I’ve seen your shows and interviews. You like acting too much to do that.”
Zhu Yilong winced on the inside. His interviews were very boring, he knew that much. Why would Bai Yu sit through them?
“And even if you wanted to quit your acting career, you would make an announcement about it,” Bai Yu continued. “You’re too responsible to your fans not to explain.”
The words surprised Zhu Yilong. He ducked his head, focusing on the soup in his bowl.
“I’m only telling the truth, what are you ducking your head for?” Bai Yu asked, bending down low over the table to peer at Zhu Yilong’s face.
“Go away,” Zhu Yilong said in complaint, frowning at him instead as his moment of shyness dissipated.
Bai Yu grinned and decidedly did not go away. Instead, he asked, “If I go away, how will you find out why I don’t age?”
At those words, Zhu Yilong perked up and asked expectantly, “So you’re going to tell me why you don’t age?”
“It’s a very long story,” Bai Yu dithered, putting on an uncertain expression at Zhu Yilong’s willingness to sit and listen.
Even though he knew it was just a ploy, Zhu Yilong played along and said, “We have time for long stories.” Because they did. They had time a-plenty in this Tower.
“Then, I think you need some context about the kind of person I am. We should start with that time I went out on a great adventure and fell into a thorny bush,” Bai Yu began in a grandiose storytelling style.
Zhu Yilong didn’t find out why Bai Yu didn’t age that day, but he did end up laughing until his sides ached at Bai Yu’s terrible antics when he was younger, forgetting to ask how this related to the mystery of his age. Every time Bai Yu’s lack of aging came up, it would result in an entertaining recounting of a story from his past instead. Rather than finding the avoidance irritating, Zhu Yilong found himself looking forward to hearing yet another interesting story about Bai Yu, found himself taking the initiative to ask again and again why Bai Yu didn’t age even though he knew he wouldn’t hear the truth.
The days passed like this, with surprising ease, hours trickling away like water flowing unhindered downstream. In the past, every time it was Zhu Yilong’s turn in the Tower, he worked diligently and without complaint, focusing entirely on his duty to the exclusion of everything else. Every moment used to pass with the same steadfast monotony.
Now, he had Bai Yu here.
Zhu Yilong still worked hard, still ensured he fulfilled his duty to perfection, as long as one ignored the mystery of the unaging person by his side. But now, his days seemed surprisingly short, the air filled with chatter and laughter. Any time he straightened from peering at another mortal’s face, he would only need to look up to see Bai Yu sprawled out on the couch, taking yet another lazy nap. Any time he thought about taking a break, Bai Yu was already there, pestering him to come see or do something.
It had only taken Bai Yu a couple days to learn that like the kitchen pantry, the storage closet would yield whatever item you thought about, which had resulted in all kinds of toys and items geared towards distraction appearing in Zhu Yilong’s workshop. He had made noises of complaints, but hadn’t tried very hard to keep his space clear of Bai Yu’s presence. It was rather nice to look up from his work sometimes to see Bai Yu preoccupied with some knick-knack, tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he fiddled with it. If occasionally he let himself be challenged into a Rubik’s cube-solving competition with Bai Yu... Well, that was just something he did while on a break. It was important for his health to rest his body from time to time, putting aside immortality and what not.
Over time, Zhu Yilong found himself playing with Bai Yu’s toys, just as a way to occupy his hands while he pondered over work.
“You’re really good with your hands.” That warm voice came from much closer than Zhu Yilong expected, practically right up against his right ear.
Blinking, Zhu Yilong realized he was bouncing a Yo-Yo in his hand, performing little tricks with it so that with a few flips and turns, the Yo-Yo string formed a star instead. He couldn’t honestly remember when he had learned how to do that.
“It’s not hard,” Zhu Yilong said. “You could probably pick it up with little effort too.”
Bai Yu draped an arm over his shoulder, declaring, “Impossible. I don’t have your clever fingers, I don’t think I could ever master that.”
Turning his head to look at Bai Yu’s slight pout, Zhu Yilong asked helplessly, “How would you know if you don’t try?”
“Oh, so you’re offering to teach me? I accept, thank you!” Bai Yu grinned at him, eyes curving with obvious joy.
Of course, Zhu Yilong had made no such offer, but could he say that now when faced with Bai Yu’s radiant smile? As usual, Zhu Yilong could only go with the flow, but he tried to at least negotiate. “I’ll teach you after work. I can’t fall behind.”
Shrugging, Bai Yu agreed amiably. “No problem, I can wait.”
For a few quiet minutes, they both just stood there, neither of them moving. Bai Yu was still draped over Zhu Yilong’s shoulders, and Zhu Yilong was still looking at him from out of the corner of his eye.
“Bai Yu, how am I going to work with you stuck to me like that?” Zhu Yilong asked, his voice dry.
“Just pretend I’m a giant plaster,” Bai Yu said shamelessly. “Sticky, hard to forget I’m there, but you should still be able to move about as long as I’m pressed closely to you.”
Zhu Yilong rolled his eyes and shrugged his arm off, going back to the demon on the plinth, still frozen in place for Zhu Yilong to work Time on. While demons aged much slower than humans depending on their cultivation, they weren’t completely free from the workings of Time. This particular demon was more than five hundred years old, but it wasn’t obvious from his youthful face. Zhu Yilong took out a little chisel to chip at his essence.
“Ah, so harshly rejected, how will I cope?” Bai Yu asked mournfully, slinking over to the couch and collapsing into it like he was boneless.
Used to his antics by now, Zhu Yilong ignored him, and after a brief moment, Bai Yu stretched himself out on the couch for yet another afternoon nap in the sun, clearly not all that affected by the so-called rejection.
Later that night, after another meal that Bai Yu had prepared, Zhu Yilong taught him all kinds of tricks on the Yo-Yo. It seemed to involve a lot of touching, holding hands, adjusting fingers and furious blushing from Zhu Yilong, and terribly satisfied smirking from Bai Yu. Despite Zhu Yilong’s embarrassment, he somehow continued these lessons for several nights more.
Bai Yu never seemed to master the art of playing with a Yo-Yo, despite being so nimble-fingered most of the time. It was strange, but Zhu Yilong wasn’t one to give up easily, so he diligently spent more time teaching Bai Yu. It was good that Bai Yu never seemed upset or disappointed by his seeming lack of progress. If anything, he seemed to approach each lesson with greater relish and no concern that the Yo-Yo seemed to be beyond his ability to master.
Weeks later, Bai Yu pulled out a basketball and a basketball hoop from the magic storage cupboard.
He leaned against the wall, lazily dribbling the basketball by his side as he had asked with a languid smile, “You like basketball, don’t you?”
The heavy-lidded look combined with the welcoming smile and the familiar sound of the basketball thudding against the floor were all just too much to resist. Within an hour, they had co-opted one of the empty lower floors and turned it into their small, odd-shaped basketball court. With the basketball hoop attached to one wall, they played to their hearts’ content, a game that involved a lot of blocking each other and pushing against one another when trying to jostle for a good position.
It didn’t really matter who was winning or losing, both of them had lost track of the score a long time ago. The important part was how much fun they were having, how they were grinning at each other and shit-talking as they bumped against each other, casually in each other’s personal space without any care.
As Zhu Yilong etched the passage of Time on the mortals of the world, Time spun around them and kept them in a safe, quiet cocoon from the rest of the world.
It was peaceful, only filled with the sound of their placid voices and quiet interaction.
Until it wasn’t.
“What is this?” Zhu Yilong asked in confusion, holding up a yellow plastic chicken.
Bai Yu was grinning at him like he was about to present the most amazing phenomenon to Zhu Yilong. “Give it a squeeze.”
Blinking, Zhu Yilong obeyed and gave the chicken a squeeze, hearing a soft puff as the air was pushed out of it. After a moment, when Bai Yu said nothing else, Zhu Yilong released his hold in confusion. He almost fell off his chair when the bright yellow chicken let out a sound that resembled a tragic crowing cry. Looking down at the plastic chicken, he squeezed it again and on release, it cried out again pathetically.
Zhu Yilong burst into laughter.
He couldn’t explain it, but the little mournful, almost accusatory cry was just hilarious. He squeezed it again and again, at varying speeds, to hear short and long cries of protest from the plastic chicken. When Bai Yu handed over a second plastic chicken, Zhu Yilong squeezed both in tandem, and that was even funnier.
He looked up expecting to see Bai Yu laughing at him or giggling along, like he always did because nothing was too childish or silly for Bai Yu, but instead, he was only smiling gently, a strange, unreadable softness in his eyes as he gazed on Zhu Yilong.
Inexplicably flustered, Zhu Yilong looked down at the plastic chickens in his hands, feeling seen in a way that he had never experienced even when in the middle of filming on a set, being the focus of so many eyes.
“What— What is it?” Zhu Yilong asked, patting one of the plastic chickens on the head in embarrassed apology, before he couldn’t resist squeezing it lightly again to hear its tiny protesting cries. A smile ticked up on his lips at how ridiculous they sounded. “I know it’s silly, but they just sound so funny,” he continued, feeling the need to justify his behavior.
“You’re the most adorable person I’ve ever met in my life.”
Zhu Yilong looked up with a frown, wondering if he was being teased again, but Bai Yu’s eyes were bright with fondness instead. Not understanding where this was coming from, Zhu Yilong mumbled, “I’m not,” before looking back down at the chickens again.
He wasn’t sure what else to say or how to react, only feeling a little agitated all of a sudden. Then, a tiny squeaking cry broke their momentary silence, and he looked up to see Bai Yu squeezing a smaller plastic chicken in his hand.
Now Bai Yu was grinning broadly. “They do sound very funny.”
A little relieved but also oddly disappointed that the mysterious moment had passed, Zhu Yilong said in a low voice, as if it was a secret, “You don’t know him but...Rooster sounds a bit like that when he’s worked up.”
Bai Yu burst out into laughter at that, that easy, joyous laugh that never failed to pull Zhu Yilong along in amusement. “No way. One of the dignified Sacred Twelve Animals sounds like this?” He squeezed the small chicken for emphasis and doubled over when it squeaked, as if imagining a grown man crying out in the same way.
“He really does!” Zhu Yilong insisted, joining him in laughter when he started squeezing his plastic chickens too, resulting in a symphony of complaining chickens.
Zhu Yilong didn’t forget about how Bai Yu’s memories of the Tower and all the time spent in it would vanish the moment he stepped outside. In fact, as the days passed, Zhu Yilong found it harder and harder not to dwell on how Bai Yu would eventually forget everything…
They were friends now, weren’t they? Zhu Yilong didn’t have many friends, but he had some very good ones, even amongst the mortals. So he recognized friendship in the ease in which they spent their time together, in the jokes they shared. There were parts of their friendship he didn’t quite recognize, like how he sometimes found himself distracted by Bai Yu’s lush lips, or he would sometimes look up from his work to see Bai Yu gazing at him with an unreadable expression. There were moments he didn’t quite understand, like when they stood very close together, or when he realized he had been staring at Bai Yu napping for the last half an hour.
But Zhu Yilong figured this was part of being friends with Bai Yu. Bai Yu was just an oddity in himself, a unique person who couldn’t be understood with logic, someone incomparable to the rest. That explained why friendship with him was different too.
Zhu Yilong didn’t want them to stop being friends, but that would certainly happen once Bai Yu left the Tower, because he wouldn’t remember Zhu Yilong at all. He considered the idea of approaching Bai Yu afterwards and rekindling their friendship. But there were many problems with that idea, first and foremost being that Zhu Yilong was not very good at starting friendships. And would Bai Yu even be interested in being friends with him, without the allure of mystery and knowledge that Zhu Yilong was one of the Sacred Twelve and was in charge of Time right now?
It didn’t seem likely. What was interesting about him once you took all that away? He was an actor, but possibly the most boring actor on earth, with quiet, boring hobbies.
Even if Bai Yu did somehow decide to be friends with him…
It wouldn’t be the same.
Zhu Yilong didn’t want Bai Yu to forget how they first met, to forget the hours and days they spent together in this Tower. He didn’t want to have to hold himself back, to have to pretend not to know Bai Yu.
But did he have any other choice?
It was possible that Bai Yu might know about the rules and restrictions of the Tower, but would that matter? Other than the Sacred Twelve, all mortals, be they human or demons or ghosts, would forget about the Tower and all that they saw in it the moment they stepped outside the Tower again. It was unavoidable.
Zhu Yilong felt unreconciled to this truth.
For the first time, he resented his role with Time.
“Why are you frowning like that?”
A light touch between his eyebrows caused Zhu Yilong to startle and look up from where he had been staring unseeingly at his own hands. They were in Bai Yu’s bedroom, which was right next to Zhu Yilong’s, and they often spent the late evenings here, talking about nothing in particular before they parted ways to sleep the night away. Usually, Zhu Yilong would let himself be lured into the room by Bai Yu wanting to show him some knick knack or toy he had conjured out of the ever-helpful cupboard, followed by them sitting around and talking.
Well, Zhu Yilong would usually sit in the only chair in the room, while Bai Yu would lounge on his bed. Sometimes, Zhu Yilong wasn’t sure if Bai Yu had a spine or not, with how he seemed to always gravitate towards the nearest chair or flat surface to sprawl himself out on, his long, long legs stretched out and splayed indecently.
This time was no different, with Bai Yu lying on his bed and Zhu Yilong sitting on the chair beside the bed. Bai Yu had reached out from his position on the bed to poke Zhu Yilong on the forehead.
Zhu Yilong blinked, trying to look at the finger pressing against his frown. He batted Bai Yu’s hand away and said, “I was just...thinking about the Tower.”
He wanted to ask Bai Yu if he knew, but at the same time...he was worried that that would change things between them. Would Bai Yu be upset to find out that he would lose his memories of their time in this Tower? Would he be angry that Zhu Yilong hadn’t told him earlier, had kept that from him until now?
Or worse yet, would he not care if he remembered Zhu Yilong or not?
So Zhu Yilong kept his silence, afraid to break the status quo. Bai Yu wasn’t leaving the Tower yet in any case, and Zhu Yilong still had another three more months before he had to leave so that Dragon could take over. They still had time.
Previously, Zhu Yilong used to think that he always had time, that the one thing he would never lack was time.
But that wasn’t the case anymore, not with Bai Yu by his side.
“What about the Tower is making you frown so much?” Bai Yu asked, starting a frown of his own.
“I was thinking…” Zhu Yilong groped around for a topic. “Are you getting bored in the Tower?”
Bai Yu looked surprised, pushing up so that he was propped up on his elbows to get a closer look at Zhu Yilong’s expression. “Why would you ask that? Do I seem bored?”
In all honesty, Bai Yu never seemed bored, even though Zhu Yilong spent so much time working. He always seemed content to nap the afternoon away, or find some way to entertain himself. He was very easily amused, always grinning away or bouncing in excitement just at being able to tease Zhu Yilong a little bit.
Zhu Yilong admitted, “You don’t seem bored, but...there doesn’t seem to be much for you to do here either. I’m not sure why you stay in this Tower.”
Shaking his head, Bai Yu suddenly tugged on Zhu Yilong’s shirt, drawing him closer. Confused, Zhu Yilong let himself be pulled over until he had to put a hand on the mattress to keep himself from falling into the bed.
Those distracting lips were stretched into a fond smile, dark eyes bright with soft affection. Bai Yu asked, “Isn’t it obvious why I stay?”
For a moment, Zhu Yilong wondered...wondered if Bai Yu could possibly be saying what he thought…
But that wasn’t possible. These things only happened in the shows Zhu Yilong acted in. They didn’t happen in real life, not to Zhu Yilong. There was no way this was—
Bai Yu pushed up and kissed him.
Freezing in place, Zhu Yilong’s eyes went wide, even though he couldn’t see much of anything but a blurry face. But he could feel so much, could feel soft, such soft lips pressed up against his own. Could feel warm breath tickling his skin as Bai Yu sighed, as if he had been waiting so long for this. A hand curled around the back of Zhu Yilong’s neck, pressing him closer.
Finally, finally, Zhu Yilong let his eyes flutter shut to better concentrate on the plush lips, to revel in the way teeth grazed teasingly across his lower lip, only to be followed by lips pressing closer, by a tongue that soothed and seduced.
Zhu Yilong had kissed before of course, had been in short but passionate relationships, had embraced hungrily for the camera.
But he had never kissed like this before. It was a kiss that was tender, that was slow and exploratory, causing Zhu Yilong to feel short of breath, but never anxious. It was a kiss that tasted of passion, that felt intriguingly new, that he wanted to learn and learn anew again.
After what could have been eternity, if eternity was far too short, Bai Yu pulled away, and Zhu Yilong unthinkingly followed, almost falling down as he tried to continue the kiss. Bai Yu chuckled and brushed Zhu Yilong’s hair back, asking softly, “Now do you know why I stay?”
Zhu Yilong could barely remember the original question that had started all of this. But when he did, he found himself breathless all over again. He looked into Bai Yu’s warm eyes and suddenly realized why there were parts of this friendship that he didn’t understand, didn’t recognize.
But now he understood everything, and all he could think was…
He wanted more.
Crawling directly into the bed, leaning over Bai Yu’s sprawled body, Zhu Yilong murmured, “I think you better explain it again.”
Bai Yu laughed at that, eyes creasing and a dimple flashing through his facial hair. Smiling, Zhu Yilong leaned down and finally got to taste the laughter he had been listening to for so long without ever realizing that this was what he had been hungering for all along.
After that, Bai Yu was even more of a distraction. A terrible, terrible distraction that Zhu Yilong now found impossible to ignore. Bai Yu would lift a corner of his lips in a lopsided smile, look up in a certain way, and Zhu Yilong knew that he was thinking about something filthy and scandalous. It was a struggle to complete his work with Bai Yu lounging around and watching him with lowered lashes, long legs clad in absurdly tight jeans stretched out on the couch.
Zhu Yilong would never be able to look at the couch the same way again, after the things they had done on it.
After their relationship had taken a turn for the intimate, Bai Yu’s teasing went to a whole new level.
Like right now.
Zhu Yilong had a good rhythm going, having made a lot of progress this afternoon as he worked Time on his thousandth subject of the hour. Then, he felt hot breath gust against the back of his neck, startling a shiver out of him while his heart skipped a beat with sudden excitement.
He turned around and glared, hand still clutching his little brush. “Bai Yu,” he said through clenched teeth. “I thought you agreed no distractions for at least another hour.”
Bai Yu blinked slowly at him, the epitome of innocence. “I didn’t do anything, Long-ge. I was just standing here.”
“You breathed onto my neck,” Zhu Yilong pointed out.
“Oh, so now I’m not even allowed to breathe?” Bai Yu asked, widening his eyes and looking as mournful as possible. “Aren’t you just bullying me if I’m not even allowed to stand here and breathe?”
Dropping the brush, Zhu Yilong grabbed Bai Yu by the shoulders and pushed him back until he had him pinned to a pillar. He leaned in, closing the distance between them until he could smell Bai Yu’s mellow yet masculine scent, could count every single one of his lashes. From up close, Bai Yu’s mischievous gaze was even more mesmerizing, his beloved face even harder to resist despite that obnoxiously smug expression.
“Why are you so— so infuriating?” Zhu Yilong asked, eyes dipping to those absurdly lush, parted lips.
Bai Yu hooked an arm around Zhu Yilong’s neck and said with a grin, “Because you like me infuriating.”
What else could Zhu Yilong do in response to that, beyond kissing him punishingly hard, even though he knew it was no punishment at all for Bai Yu? He was proven right when Bai Yu opened up for him immediately and moaned throatily in delight.
Later, much later, Zhu Yilong was back at the plinth, working on the same frozen mortal again, except now his collar was undone and his hair was mussed despite his attempts to finger-comb it into submission. Bai Yu was limp on the couch, as if his muscles had melted away.
“Long-ge ah, Long-ge, I thought you were Rabbit? Why do I feel more like I was mauled by Tiger?” Bai Yu asked, hissing as he prodded one of the many red marks that was now littered across his neck.
Zhu Yilong had an unfortunate surge of over-imagination, and an image of Tiger, with his big burly muscles, pinning Bai Yu against the pillar flashed across his mind. In a sudden spike of unreasonable anger, Zhu Yilong very nearly snapped his brush in half before he forced his fingers to relax. He had already abused this brush too much today.
“Even rabbits bite when provoked,” Zhu Yilong murmured, forcing himself not to say anything else.
“I definitely have evidence of that now. Ooh, this bruise is going to last a few days at the very least.”
“You brought it on yourself,” Zhu Yilong said without sympathy, feeling very put upon at Bai Yu’s complaints after all that he had done to elicit this very reaction.
Bai Yu lamented aloud, “Aiya, this little white cabbage has been dug up by the wild rabbit. Poor, poor cabbage, so thoroughly eaten by the insatiable rabbit.”
With a great show of willpower, Zhu Yilong ignored him, even as he vowed to tire Bai Yu out so thoroughly tonight that he wouldn’t be able to get up to so much mischief tomorrow. Maybe if he tied him up in bed…
The happier the days were, the more stressed Zhu Yilong felt.
It couldn’t be avoided. The hours were ticking by and soon, they would reach the end of this little arrangement between them. Bai Yu didn’t even know that yet, because Zhu Yilong still hadn’t told him about how he would no longer remember his time in the Tower the moment he stepped outside. The longer Zhu Yilong procrastinated, the harder it was to tell him the truth.
Would it be cruel to tell Bai Yu, since he couldn’t do anything to change the situation? Zhu Yilong was experiencing for himself the helplessness and growing unhappiness at the hopeless situation, the happiness he felt when with Bai Yu tainted with an undercurrent of worry at the impending loss. What would be the point in telling Bai Yu as well? It would only make the both of them miserable for the remaining time they had together. Zhu Yilong would prefer to eke out every bit of happiness possible from the time left to them, rather than causing the both of them to stew over a problem they couldn’t solve.
He kept telling himself that it wasn’t certain that he would lose Bai Yu, or at the very least, it wouldn’t be permanent. Even if Bai Yu forgot him, forgot their time together, Zhu Yilong could still seek him out again.
But would Bai Yu still like him outside of the confines of the Tower, when he was surrounded by a world full of interesting distractions? Zhu Yilong’s relationship with Bai Yu had developed under very unusual circumstances involving close proximity with no one else around them, surrounded by a mythical Tower full of wonders. Outside in the normal world, outside of this one year of work, Zhu Yilong didn’t have anything that was wondrous or interesting to attract and keep Bai Yu’s attention. Once he returned to his ‘human’ life, he was just another normal, mundane person, one out of several billion.
How could he get Bai Yu to give him a second glance and to stay interested, when there were so many other interesting people around? Zhu Yilong was very self-aware, and there were all kinds of attractive, fascinating and talented people in the entertainment industry, with much more developed social skills as compared to himself. Even in their currently limited environment within the Tower, Zhu Yilong could tell that Bai Yu was a very sociable person who likely kept himself surrounded by interesting, outgoing people all the time.
A little bitterly, Zhu Yilong wondered how many people trailed after Bai Yu with lovesick, puppy eyes, without Bai Yu himself ever noticing what he was doing to so many people with his teasing, flirtatious ways and constant physical touches. Considering Bai Yu’s innate magnetism, Zhu Yilong could hardly be the only person interested in him outside of the Tower.
As the days passed, he thought up ways to arrange a meet-up with Bai Yu that would develop their relationship in the same direction. Didn’t Bai Yu say that he initially noticed Zhu Yilong when he felt Zhu Yilong watching him? It was still a mystery what Bai Yu was and how he had noticed the attention, despite all the many stories that Bai Yu had told every time Zhu Yilong asked about his lack of aging and his mysterious knowledge of the Sacred Twelve.
The highest likelihood was that Bai Yu was some kind of demon, probably a fox demon, considering his mischievous nature and seductive capabilities, which would explain why he knew so much about the Tower and the Sacred Twelve. Demons had longer lives and weren’t nearly as ignorant as humans. Many of them knew that some myths were true or had personally stumbled across one of the Sacred Twelve. There were still some unexplained mysteries around Bai Yu since demons still aged, just extremely slowly, but it was possible that Bai Yu had discovered a way to stop his aging in his long life. Stranger things had happened when demons were involved.
Zhu Yilong briefly considered a scheme that involved watching Bai Yu until Bai Yu noticed him, a replay of the events that had unfolded in the Tower, except he wouldn’t be able to do it as easily since he wouldn’t have the Tower and its magical powers anymore. He still had some abilities, so the other possibility was to stalk Bai Yu through more mundane ways, but he quickly discarded that idea. While investigating Bai Yu for his lack of aging was reasonable in Zhu Yilong’s role as the current Timekeeper, that wouldn’t be the case at all once he returned to the mortal realm. It felt unsettling to even consider stalking Bai Yu for his own personal motives, and he couldn’t imagine that Bai Yu would be any happier to find a fellow actor doing that to him.
He considered arranging some kind of accidental meet-up, maybe bumping into Bai Yu somewhere, but he couldn’t figure out how he could convince Bai Yu to go from stranger to friends at that point. Since they were both actors, he naturally considered finding someone to introduce them. If he searched hard enough, he was certain he could find a mutual acquaintance at the very least, but then he would also have to come up with a reason for the introduction. The truth was naturally out of the question. “I find you attractive,” seemed very shallow, and “I want to be in a relationship with you,” would be very confusing and would seem like it came out of nowhere.
At a loss for good ideas and getting desperate, Zhu Yilong started probing Bai Yu. “What will you do once you leave the Tower?”
“Challenge you to a proper game of basketball, where we have teammates. Maybe that will give me an actual chance at winning,” Bai Yu said, before frowning. “But then, whichever team wins, it wouldn’t be as fun as our basketball games.” He winked at Zhu Yilong when he said that last part.
They had just finished a round of one-on-one basketball, which had quickly turned into a very different kind of one-on-one altogether, and were lying on the floor, sweaty arms pressed together.
Trying not to blush, Zhu Yilong clarified, “I meant, what work are you doing? Are you currently filming anything?”
Bai Yu shook his head. “No, but I have a role as a main character in a TV show lined up. There’s just been funding issues lately, which has caused some delays.”
“Oh, what is the show about?” Zhu Yilong asked, trying to sound casually curious.
This was Zhu Yilong’s only viable plan. If he could try to get into the same show, he would have a chance to meet Bai Yu and potentially spend time together. It wouldn’t be easy if the show was going to start soon, because that usually meant that they had already cast the lead roles, but perhaps he could get a smaller part on the show. His studio would probably be horrified at his line of thinking, since he had played a couple lead roles in his recent projects, so taking a smaller part would be a step down. But this was the best option out of all his ideas right now.
Distracted by his own thoughts, Zhu Yilong hadn’t noticed Bai Yu’s mischievous grin until Bai Yu suddenly rolled over on top of him. Looking down at him, Bai Yu’s hair was mussed and his lips were swollen. They were both dishevelled and mostly undressed from where clothing had been removed or shoved aside in haste earlier.
Instinctively, Zhu Yilong’s hands went to Bai Yu’s bare hips as he blinked, lips parting when Bai Yu dragged his fingers affectionately through Zhu Yilong’s sweat-damp hair.
“The show is about a bunch of people investigating all these murders and mysteries revolving around aliens who have superpowers, while being unaware that one of the people helping them is the most powerful alien of all,” Bai Yu explained, his eyes soft as he traced Zhu Yilong’s features with his eyes, followed by his own hands, trailing a finger down the curve of Zhu Yilong’s cheekbone and gently outlining his lips. “But mostly, it’s about a man who is in love with another man, and over time, the other man falls in love with him as well. It’s a love story that spans over ten thousand years.”
Zhu Yilong’s lashes dipped as he felt Bai Yu touch the corner of his eye gently, brushing like butterfly wings against his skin. He said with a wavering voice, “I— I don’t think that kind of show will be allowed.”
Softly, Bai Yu leaned down and touched his lips to Zhu Yilong’s left eyelid, before brushing a kiss against his right eyelid as well. Then he replied, “The romance will be mostly subtext, but the story should convey the message well enough.”
“And you’re one of the two men who are in love?” Zhu Yilong asked, his voice quiet.
Bai Yu nodded when Zhu Yilong opened his eyes and looked up at him.
To his surprise, Zhu Yilong felt a pang of deep regret. The key roles were most definitely cast by now, which meant that there was no possibility for Zhu Yilong to play the other main lead. The idea of playing a character deeply in love with Bai Yu’s character, of being able to openly stare at Bai Yu in front of a camera and convey deep longing and passion... It was unexpectedly appealing. Zhu Yilong had never felt this way before, had never wished he could play a character that would allow him to express his true feelings for another person on film. But the possibility of it filled him with a surprising sharp want.
Unfortunately, it was too late for that. But at the very least, he could try to find a smaller part he could play so that he could arrange to meet with Bai Yu.
“Let’s rehearse a little,” Bai Yu said, interrupting Zhu Yilong’s deep thoughts.
Raising his eyebrows, Zhu Yilong asked, “Rehearse?”
Bai Yu nodded again and smiled as he leaned down. His breath was warm against Zhu Yilong’s lips as he murmured, “I need practice playing the role of a man in love with another man.”
Then he sealed Zhu Yilong’s lips with a kiss, even as he enveloped Zhu Yilong’s heart in sweet warmth with his words.
Zhu Yilong looked over the familiar bustling city, leaning forward on the long second hand of the clock. They were back. On the last day of his service, the Tower always returned to the same city where he had entered the Tower on the first day of the year.
It was time to leave.
He wasn’t ready yet, but he would likely never be ready, no matter what he told himself or how much he planned.
“I never understood why it’s a clock tower.”
Zhu Yilong didn’t turn around. Instead, he trailed a hand along the curved rim of the clock and said, “The Tower that controls time, why would it not be symbolized as a clock tower?”
“But why doesn’t it show the wheel of the Sacred Twelve Animals instead?” Bai Yu asked from behind him, before warm arms curled around his waist and a lean body pressed up against his back. “Why don’t I get to see my cute Rabbit as one of Time’s symbols?”
Placing a gentle hand on Bai Yu’s arm, Zhu Yilong stroked along his forearm and said softly, “We did use to be on the face of the Tower. Instead of the clock you now see, it was the wheel of the Sacred Twelve, once upon a time. One of each Animal to represent the hours. But as civilization changed, mortals began to associate the modern day clock with Time. So one day, the clock appeared instead and replaced the Sacred Twelve wheel.”
Bai Yu curled up against his back and hooked his chin over Zhu Yilong’s shoulder. “Moving with the times.”
“We cannot stop change,” Zhu Yilong said, with regret heavy in his voice and in his bones. If only they could stop change. If only he could freeze time for good, just like this, between the two of them.
“Hey… If there’s something you want to talk about, something that’s worrying you… You know you can talk to me, right?” Bai Yu offered as he pressed his cheek up against the side of Zhu Yilong’s head. His concern was palpable, and Zhu Yilong didn’t want that, didn’t want the last day with Bai Yu to be spent mired in sadness.
He turned in Bai Yu’s embrace and when he felt the comforting hold around him loosen so that he could move, he threw his arms around Bai Yu’s shoulders to clasp him back tightly. Bai Yu’s arms returned the tight embrace.
“I don’t want things to change between us when we leave,” Zhu Yilong said honestly, looking into Bai Yu’s eyes even though he knew that his words would not be truly understood.
Bai Yu’s gaze softened, his lips curving up sweetly. “It won’t. Don’t worry, it definitely won’t.”
Even though Zhu Yilong knew it would be an inadvertent lie, knew that it was stupid to ask, he still said with painfully pointless hope in his heart, “Promise?”
Leaning in, Bai Yu kissed him, soft and slow, before pressing their foreheads together. “I promise,” Bai Yu said with certainty in his voice, certainty he wouldn’t have if he only knew the truth.
They spent the day together, just like how they had spent all their days since Bai Yu had so abruptly pushed his way into Zhu Yilong’s life. But today, there was even more than the normal amounts of touching, kissing, holding each other. Bai Yu took it in stride, seeming to assume that Zhu Yilong was just anxious about going back to the mortal realm and what it would do to their relationship. That was the truth on the surface, but the crux of the matter wasn’t one known to Bai Yu, so it wasn’t a concern he could actually address.
Zhu Yilong held on tight, for as long as he could, trying to soak up every minute and second that seemed to be slipping rapidly through between his fingers. It was ironic, considering the work he did and how he inflicted Time on the mortals. In the end, he was a slave to Time itself and could no more master it than the mortals could. He could only hope that his plan to find Bai Yu again and introduce himself on the set of this new show would work out somehow.
After working on the last mortal of the year, etching Time on their bodies and in their souls, Zhu Yilong cleaned up the workshop, tidied up everything even though he knew that the moment he stepped out of the Tower, everything in it would reset back to its original place, as if untouched from the moment the Tower had first came into being. It was his habit to do this, to tidy everything up and put them in their right place as a personal ritual at the end of his work.
Usually, Zhu Yilong left as he came, empty-handed. All his needs had always been provided by the Tower and were always returned back to the Tower once he was done. But this time, he had taken out a bag from the ever-providing storage cupboard and used it to pack away several items, including the basketball and several plastic chickens Bai Yu had conjured out for him. The various Yo-Yos and Rubik’s cubes were all gone, placed into Bai Yu’s own bag.
Bai Yu watched, not disrupting or distracting from the habitual ritual, until Zhu Yilong was finally done, until everything was returned to their rightful places and all Zhu Yilong had by his side was a small duffel bag. Then, Bai Yu finally drew near and held his hand out in front of Zhu Yilong, an inviting smile on his lips.
“Let’s go,” Bai Yu said, watching him expectantly.
Without a word but with great trepidation, Zhu Yilong took his hand and held on tight.
Step by step, they walked down the spiral staircase, walked past all the places they had accumulated so many sweet memories, made their way down the Tower to where they had met each other, where something more had grown between them.
Finally, they stood before the large doors at the bottom of the Tower. Bai Yu didn’t hesitate, didn’t look back at all, when he pushed the doors open to the dark of midnight. For a moment, Zhu Yilong felt blind with the darkness in front of him after the bright lights inside the Tower, blinking in a daze as he felt Bai Yu tug on his hand.
Zhu Yilong wanted to yank him back, to refuse to leave, but he found himself weak and powerless in this crucial moment, his legs almost shaking as he stumbled forward.
“Let’s go,” Bai Yu called out in excitement, dragging Zhu Yilong forward with exuberance.
And then they were standing outside, no longer confined by the curved walls of the Tower. They were standing hand-in-hand on a pavement, surrounded by skyscrapers, right beneath a midnight blue sky blanketed in gleaming stars. Behind them, the Tower was already gone.
Zhu Yilong couldn’t breathe through his fear of what would come next. He thought he had been ready, knew what to do after this, was determined to persevere. But he had only been lying to himself. He wasn’t ready, probably would never be ready for this.
He felt Bai Yu’s hand in his go still, stiffened. Then Bai Yu turned around and those familiar, beloved eyes were wide, so wide as he stared at Zhu Yilong.
In that moment, Zhu Yilong felt his heart crack, felt pain he didn’t think was possible surge through his chest, as he looked at Bai Yu staring at him with complete confusion on his face, as if he couldn’t understand what he was looking at.
Then Bai Yu stepped forward and touched Zhu Yilong’s cheek. “Baby, why are you crying?” he asked with urgent concern.
Zhu Yilong blinked rapidly as Bai Yu brushed a thumb beneath his eye, and Zhu Yilong realized that there were tears streaking down his cheeks without him even noticing.
But that wasn’t important. That wasn’t important at all.
“You… You remember me?” Zhu Yilong asked in a hoarse voice.
Brows furrowing, Bai Yu asked, “Are you alright? Did the Tower do something to you?”
Zhu Yilong gasped and pulled Bai Yu closer by the hand that was still clasped in his own. “You remember the Tower. You remember us.”
“Of course I do, why wouldn’t—” Bai Yu stopped as realization dawned in his eyes. “This is some Tower shenanigans, isn’t it? Was I— Was I not meant to remember?” Then he looked heartbroken as he asked in a shattered voice, “Did you not want me to remember?”
Zhu Yilong grabbed Bai Yu’s other hand that had been drawing back from his cheek and pressed his lips to his palm, kissing it fervently. Then he held that precious hand to his cheek, refusing to let go. “Never. Never. I was afraid… I was so afraid you wouldn’t remember me. It’s the rule within the Tower; anyone other than the Sacred Twelve will forget everything they see or experience in the Tower once they leave. I didn’t want— But I thought…”
Pulling him close, Bai Yu wrapped his arms around Zhu Yilong quickly, holding him tight to stop his words. Bai Yu pressed a hard kiss to Zhu Yilong’s cheek, murmuring against his skin, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you keep all that in? I could have told you…”
“I didn’t think it would make a difference,” Zhu Yilong cut in, feeling shocked but elated by this turn of events, to find himself still in Bai Yu’s arms. He hadn’t lost this after all. He hadn’t been forgotten. “I didn’t think you could change anything, and that would just upset you as well. It’s not possible that any mortal remembers the Tower—”
“I’m not a mortal,” Bai Yu interrupted, pulling back as he said that.
“Even demons can’t remember the Tower once they leave it. It’s a safeguard,” Zhu Yilong explained, looking at Bai Yu with increasing confusion. He was so happy, but he also didn’t understand how it was possible. “No one but the Sacred Twelve can remember the Tower once they leave it.”
“You mean the Sacred Animals,” Bai Yu repeated.
Zhu Yilong nodded. “Yes, no one but the Sacred Animals can remember the Tower.”
But Bai Yu shook his head and corrected him, “No, you said no one but the Sacred Twelve can remember the Tower once they leave it. But I’m telling you that no one but the Sacred Animals can remember it.”
“I don’t understand the difference,” Zhu Yilong admitted.
“The difference is in the number. I’m one of the Sacred Animals,” Bai Yu explained calmly. “But I’m not one of the Sacred Twelve Animals.”
Zhu Yilong stared at him, eyes round and mouth open in complete astonishment. He couldn’t think of anything to say, he was too shocked for words.
Wincing at his expression, Bai Yu continued, “I didn’t know there was a safeguard that involved wiping memories, otherwise I would have told you earlier. I would have never kept you worrying like that if I had known. I only didn’t tell you, because I just wanted to have a secret you couldn’t figure out easily that could keep you intrigued.”
“I’m not… I’m not interested in you because you have a secret I couldn’t figure out,” Zhu Yilong said with a frown.
“I’m glad, because I’m telling you my secret now,” Bai Yu said softly. “I’m Cat.”
Zhu Yilong was astonished all over again, but he found his voice this time. “But...that’s a myth.”
That caused Bai Yu to burst out into laughter. He shook his head and gave Zhu Yilong an amused look. “ You’re a myth, and yet, here you are.”
Shaking his head, Zhu Yilong said, “I thought the Cat part of the Sacred Animals was added later by mortals. After all, there wasn’t a race, we were just given Divine instructions to take on the role of Timekeepers and work the wheel of Time. How did Rat trick you out of a position?”
“She didn’t,” Bai Yu said with a shrug. “Both Rat and Ox helped me. I didn’t want to work Time; it sounded boring. So they both helped hide me away on the day when we were to receive our Divine instructions.”
Zhu Yilong stared at him. “You didn’t join us as Timekeepers...because you thought it would be boring?”
It was ridiculous, but so very Bai Yu at the same time. “You’re such a spoiled cat,” Zhu Yilong scolded helplessly. “If you’re Cat, then why did you come to the Tower? You know everything about Time and the Tower.”
“I came to look for you, of course. I could feel it when you started watching and examining me, so I asked Rat who was in the Tower this year. I was surprised to find out that the talented and dedicated Zhu Yilong who shared my same profession was also one of the Sacred Animals and a Timekeeper! I couldn’t resist checking you out.”
“Ah, don’t try to deny it,” Bai Yu said, waving away his protests. Then, he stared at Zhu Yilong, the humor in his eyes fading as he asked in unusual seriousness, “What were you going to do if I had forgotten you? Would you have just walked away?”
Zhu Yilong shook his head urgently. “No, I was planning to try to join that show you have lined up next. I was hoping there was a side role that hadn’t been cast yet which I could audition for so that I had a reason to meet you and spend time with you on set.”
“A side role? You would have been wasted in a side role!” Bai Yu said with scandalized disapproval, his earlier seriousness disappearing in his surprise.
“The role wasn’t the important part. I just needed a reason to meet you,” Zhu Yilong said, breaking into a smile at Bai Yu’s priorities.
“Wow, Long-ge, I didn’t think I would ever hear you say that the role isn’t important.”
Zhu Yilong’s smile was shaky, but he didn’t care. He was too happy to care as he said, “Nothing will ever be as important as you.”
That seemed to stun Bai Yu. He stared at Zhu Yilong with wide eyes before leaning in impulsively, kissing him hard and fast. Then he pulled back just as abruptly and looked around the deserted street corner. “It’s a good thing it’s past midnight and there’s no one around. Let’s go, Long-ge. I’ve been dying to show you my apartment.”
Taking a step back, Bai Yu tugged on Zhu Yilong’s hand again with an inviting smile on his lips.
This time, Zhu Yilong smiled back sincerely, with no more worries or fears in his heart. “Let’s go,” he agreed, ready to go anywhere, as long as Bai Yu was there with him.
Except There’s A Coda
A pair of arms wrapped around Zhu Yilong from behind and a familiar weight hung off him like a limpet just as he locked the front door.
“Long-ge,” Bai Yu called out affectionately as he rubbed his head against Zhu Yilong’s cheek.
Laughing, Zhu Yilong manoeuvred around until he was facing Bai Yu, although he was still encircled in Bai Yu’s embrace.
“Xiao Bai, I thought you were meant to be meeting with your co-lead today?” Zhu Yilong asked, before swooping in to land a kiss on Bai Yu’s lips.
Naturally, Bai Yu clung on harder to Zhu Yilong and deepened the kiss. By the time they parted, they were both breathless and Zhu Yilong’s hair was a mess from Bai Yu’s grasping hands.
“Well, I’m hoping that I’m meeting with him right now,” Bai Yu murmured, but his eyes were fixed on Zhu Yilong’s lips.
Frowning, it took awhile for Zhu Yilong to link that back to his earlier question, not that it made any more sense even once he realized Bai Yu was answering him belatedly. “What do you mean?”
Bai Yu rubbed their noses together before pulling back with a mischievous smile. “You remember how you wanted to try to get a role in Guardian as a side character?”
Distracted by Bai Yu’s affectionate behavior and temptingly close lips, it took a moment for Zhu Yilong to register the question. He felt a little embarrassed at the memory of that urgent confession, but nodded. “Yes, that was my original plan.”
“Well, I can’t get you a role as a side character, but what do you think about a role as the co-lead?”
Zhu Yilong blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“Ren Yankai pulled out of the role, citing sudden conflict in schedule, but I think it’s more likely he was scared off by the sudden loss of budget and change in production company, which hey, I don’t blame him at all. But it does mean we’re suddenly short a lead actor, a month before shooting is supposed to begin,” Bai Yu said.
Raising his eyebrows in surprise, Zhu Yilong said gently, “I’m sorry that happened, Xiao Bai. I’m sure they’ll find someone to replace him quickly.” After the slash in budget, learning about a lead actor pulling out would be depressing for everyone involved in the show.
Bai Yu tilted his head and shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not. We need an actor to play a character who is deeply in mutual love with my character. It might not be explicitly shown, but there will be a lot of emotional scenes. Can you think of anyone who would nail such a role?”
It was clear what Bai Yu was getting at. Frowning a little, Zhu Yilong asked uncertainly, “Do you think that’s a good idea? You know we will be under more scrutiny once we play characters with such a relationship, no matter how much of it stays as subtext.”
“We’ve hidden our secrets as Rabbit and Cat since the beginning of Time itself. I think we can manage this tiny secret between the two of us,” Bai Yu said with a grin. Then he wheedled, “Come on, Long-ge, it’ll be so fun!”
Zhu Yilong remembered how disappointed he had been when he thought he had missed the opportunity to act in such a role against Bai Yu. Everything seemed to have somehow come together perfectly anyway. If fate was going to make such an arrangement, who was he to decline the opportunity?
“I’ll still have to audition for the role,” he pointed out.
“You’ll definitely get it. You’re the perfect Shen Wei,” Bai Yu said with sheer confidence, then he added with an impish twinkle in his eyes, “But just to be sure, I think you should practice giving me longing looks.”
Zhu Yilong felt his ears heat, but that didn’t stop him from saying, “When am I not giving you longing looks?”
“Long-ge,” Bai Yu gasped, his own cheeks flushing in delight right before he flung himself forward.
Laughing, Zhu Yilong closed his eyes in contentment as Bai Yu pressed him against the door and smothered him in enthusiastic kisses.
THE END FOR REALS